Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I first came across Jo Spence’s work a few years ago, while researching visual depictions of the suffering of illness.

Jo Spence (1934-92) was a key British photographer, particularly of the 1970s, a socialist and feminist, whose work has been central to issues and controversies in representation and photography. Later, self-portraits of her experience of illness, breast cancer initially followed by leukaemia from which she died, which were personal representations of a fight both against the onslaught of bodily illness and the medical system, in particular created a powerful record and legacy of her unflinching ability to shock and to provoke through her art.

Currently, the SPACE gallery and Studio Voltaire, London, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, are celebrating Spence’s life and work, with the latter exhibition (Part 11) focusing on her experience of illness. It is a comprehensive display, and deserves much time to dwell and to absorb, and includes photographs, collages, news clipping, video recordings, as well as many books by Spence, that require time to sit and to read, not merely to flick through. I gained most from seeing Jo Spence on the screen, softly spoken and thoughtful, and to some extent I was unprepared for this, as much of the surrounding images and self-portraits speak of anger and of outrage.

Spence was critical of the medical profession from the moment of her diagnosis, of the ‘young-coated doctor’, who, without introduction, inked the flesh of her left breast, preparing, without asking, for its removal. Spence returns again and again to the imbalance of power in the doctor/patient relationship, and how the medical profession infantilises the sufferer. Spence chose not to go down the mastectomy route, instead opting for a lumpectomy and alternative health strategies. She felt that she needed to regain control of herself, of her body, which became vulnerable and fragile and ‘other’ from the moment of diagnosis. Her photographs portray this, ‘property of Jo Spence’ vs. ‘Hospital property’, as she seeks to re-possess and regain control of her bodily self.

The alternative route that Spence chose included an exploration of veganism, iridology, TCM, and photo therapy, all of which helped her address her identity, namely that of a person with cancer, rather than one defined and labeled by a diagnosis and by illness.

In one frame she asks ‘How do I begin to take responsibility for my body?’ I am not sure we ever truly do. Our bodies are mostly silent, and ignored, until something goes wrong. The bodily breakdown that often accompanies illness is hard to ignore, and it must be even harder, I imagine, to ignore and to deny offers of medical treatment that might ‘restore’ the body to something more familiar. Spence’s decision was brave, as are the photographs that depict this journey, which was often, she acknowledges, a lonely one. The body of work The Picture of Health? clearly reveals Spence’s vulnerability, particularly when we see her undergoing a mammogram, her naked breasts imprisoned by a machine.

There is perhaps too much to see here and to absorb in a single visit. A profound sense of battle, of Spence’s fight against cancer, the medical establishment, cancer treatments, and her body presented to us as a war zone, makes the experience not an easy one for the observer. But then, why should it be otherwise… Spence was brave and humble enough to share her experience, and to leave a personal record of what it was like, with disarming honesty. The very least we can do is to bear witness, and to consider what is laid bare before us.

Jo Spence: Work (Part 1)

SPACE, London, to July 15

Jo Spence: Work (Part II)

Studio Voltaire, London, to August 11